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Documents - Political Parties and the Grand Coalition

The political system of the Federal Republic is shaped by the prominent role of the parties and by the need to form coalitions at both the state and local levels in order to secure parliamentary majorities. Therefore, smaller parties are in a position to exercise considerable influence on political events. For years, coalition arithmetic was a calculation between three parties: the CDU/CSU, the SPD, and the FDP. Over time, however, a five-party system (CDU/CSU, SPD, Bündnis 90/The Greens, FDP, and the Left Party) emerged (see Chapter 10). Although right-wing parties are not represented in the Bundestag, they are sporadically represented in individual state parliaments, and their strength varies by region. German political parties are traditionally associated with particular colors: black for the CDU/CSU, red for the SPD and the Left Party, yellow for the FDP, green for Bündnis 90/The Greens, and brown for right-wing extremist parties. Coalition options have become more varied and more extensive, and their potential is being tapped in many federal states. Coalitions with right-wing extremists groups, however, are categorically rejected by all other parties.

Coalitions at the federal level generally involve one of the two large parties (either the CDU/CSU or the SPD) and one of the smaller parties, with the partner being necessary to secure a Bundestag majority. For many years, the FDP seemed to enjoy the exclusive privilege of “tipping the scales” in governing coalitions. After joining the Red-Green coalition (together with the SPD) in 1998, the Greens, too, were accepted as a governing party at the national level. People have wondered, time and again, how long the SPD will be able to avoid a three-way left-of-center coalition with Bündnis 90/The Greens and the Left Party on the federal level (Doc. 12). The Left Party established itself as a national party in 2007; it grew out of a 2005 electoral alliance between the Party for Democratic Socialism [PDS or Partei des Demokratischen Sozialismus] and the Electoral Alternative for Labor and Social Justice [WASG or Wahlalternative Arbeit und soziale Gerechtigkeit] (Doc. 2).

Coalition power relations change dramatically when the two mainstream parties, the CDU/CSU and the SPD, form a Grand Coalition. The Grand Coalition of 1966-1969 was strongly contested and was long criticized as “undemocratic” (see Volume 9, Two Germanies, Chapter 2). In contrast, the public was generally unperturbed by the Federal Republic’s second Grand Coalition, which started its work in the fall of 2005. The political system is more stable today than it was in the 1960s; there are generally accepted democratic procedural rules and the constitution is valued highly (Doc. 1). In terms of party politics, Grand Coalitions represent a challenge for both the governing parties and the opposition alike
(Doc. 4). The two large mainstream parties have to work together, but at the same time, they also have to preserve their own individual party profiles with a view to the next election. They can either undertake fundamental reforms or paralyze the political process by creating obstacles for each other. Since they command a minority of votes, the opposition parties to the right and the left of the mainstream must sharpen their profiles and distinguish themselves programmatically from the other parties in order to improve their chances in the next election (Docs. 5 and 9).

By now it has become customary for coalitions to begin their work by presenting an agenda with their plans for the coming years. Responding to calls to lift the oft-lamented reform blockade, the coalition agreement between the CDU/CSU and the SPD, which was forged in the fall of 2005, included a host of points that had been on the political reform agenda for years (Doc. 3, see also Chapters 11 and 12). After failed beginnings, federalism reform was finally passed in the summer of 2006. It entailed a reorganization of federal and state relations in a variety of areas, and it reduced the amount of federal legislation requiring Bundesrat approval (Doc. 7). A second federalism reform, which involved limiting borrowing for the federal and state governments, was passed in 2009. Other areas of politics, including domestic security, have become more important over the past years because of the increased threat of terrorism and the growth in right-wing extremist activity (Doc. 6). On the whole, assessments of the Grand Coalition’s first year in office were cautious and somewhat reserved, as the coalition had neither taken off on the path toward reform nor remained at a complete standstill (Doc. 8).

Despite all of the gloom-and-doom-style prophesizing, the Grand Coalition survived the entire four-year legislative period. In the end, most people had a positive view of the coalition’s work; at first, the coalition profited from a global economic boom, and then it withstood the test of the financial crisis of 2008/2009, although reforms in many areas, including retirement- and health-care insurance reform, and family politics, are still pending (Doc. 11). The cooperation between the CDU/CSU and the SPD worked because the CDU adopted a more modern stance on socio-political issues (Doc. 13). The party enjoyed a significant increase in votes in the 2009 election, whereas the SPD continued to lose support (Doc. 10). The first months of the coalition between the CDU/CSU and the FDP, which was forged in the fall of 2009, were shaped by turf wars and tax-policy battles (Doc. 14). In short order, however, the Euro crisis pushed all other concerns to the backburner for a while.

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